History of Christmas Recipes: Wassail

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We sing “Here we come a-wassailing“, but what does it mean?

old ad with Wassail

The term was used as a simple greeting and toast. The term has evolved over the centuries.

The word ‘wassail’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase ‘waes hael’, which means ‘good health’ or “be healthful”.

Originally, the wassail was a drink made of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar. It was served from huge bowls, often made of silver or pewter.

The drink has a pulp from the roasted apples which makes it look frothy or like Lambs Wool. For this reason the drink is sometimes referred to by that name.

Wassailing was traditionally done on New Year’s Eve and Twelfth Night, but some rich people drank Wassail on all the 12 days of Christmas!

A story told in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, written in 1135, purports to explain the origin of the toast:


“The story of toasting “wassail” begins when Renwein presented King Vortigern with a cup of wine and the salute “Was hail.”
While Vortigern was being entertained at a royal banquet, the girl Renwein came out of an inner room carrying a golden goblet full of wine. She walked up to the King, curtsied low, and said “Lavert King, was hail!” When he saw the girl’s face, Vortigern was greatly struck by her beauty and was filled with desire for her. He asked his interpreter what it was that the girl had said and what he ought to reply to her. “She called you Lord King and did you honour by drinking your health. What you should reply is ‘drinc hail.'” Vortigern immediately said the words “drinc hail” and ordered Renwein to drink. Then he took the goblet from her hand, kissed her and drank in his turn. From that day to this, the tradition has endured in Britain that the one who drinks first at a banquet says “was hail” and he who drinks next says “drinc hail.””

The first mention of a wassail bowl was in the thirteenth century, a vessel in which revelers dipped cakes and fine bread.

One source said that “At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions. In exchange, the lord of the manor had the goodwill of his people for another year. At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth.”

The Puritan Parliament outlawed the celebration in England during the 1640s and 1650s.

old Wassail bowl

By the 1820s, American novelist Washington Irving wrote about and idealized English Christmas, which included wassailing.

Charles Dickens wrote of gathering around the wassail bowl.

Elements of wassailing continued in Britain and America through the early 20th Century.

Wassailing grew into another way to say Merry Christmas to one another.

Today the drink of wassail has blended into a cup of hot cider.

Wassailing has become a distant memory except for in a few rural places in Great Britain.

Click here for the recipe

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